When a Facial Tic Can Signal a Musical Shift

A conductor has to allow his face to show the character of the music. "Sometimes your face looks more serious, sometimes it looks more animated, sometimes it looks more pensive. That's definitely part of the communication."
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How much do you think your personality comes out in the way you conduct?

Alan Gilbert:  I hope it comes out intensely.  That's not to say that it’s about me, that.. I think that conducting is obviously a visual activity because it's about showing things with your gesture to the musicians.  But I don't want the audience to feel that they have to see a show from me in order to feel how exciting the music is.  But on the other hand, if the music is exciting and if I look unengaged and not in it, then that would certainly prevent the experience from being what it really should be.  It's a fine line that you sort of have to walk to really infuse the performance and the music with your deeply committed personality while allowing the music to still be paramount.  It's a tricky thing, and it's what we're all going for.

Question:
Do your facial expressions affect the way people play?

Alan Gilbert:  Absolutely.  I mean, you have to allow your face to show the character of the music, but that's not something that I plan.  You don't say, “Well, I want them to think I'm happy, so I'll smile now.”  You naturally allow yourself to feel the music and then just as you.. when you're hanging out, sometimes your face looks more serious, sometimes it looks more animated, sometimes it looks more pensive.  That's definitely part of the communication.

Question:
When you start as a conductor of a new orchestra, how long does it take them to understand your facial expressions?

Alan Gilbert:  It happens right away, actually, or hopefully it does.  If it doesn't, then there's probably something wrong.  It's interesting.  You can really understand the difference an orchestra feels in conductors if you go to a conducting class where there may be six or ten or twelve conductors in a very short span of time.  Often it happens that these conductors will be doing the same music, so you have a really good basis of comparison.

The sound is literally different within one second of—or instantly—once a new conductor comes on.  They'll conduct the same music that had just been done by another conductor, but the orchestra sounds completely different.  It's uncanny.  There's something in the body language that immediately translates into sound, and that's one of the exciting and kind of amazing things about conducting.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman